Updated: Nov 4, 2021
Working remotely has hardly been a cure for the toxic workplace. In fact, it can actually make a bad situation worse, moving toxic behaviors online where they can be harder to identify and address. Toxicity always starts with relationships – whether they are with coworkers, bosses, or even business partners. Toxic individuals create strong negative influences on your own mental state – and in the case of a toxic workplace, they infect the entire culture adversely.
Alarmingly, the number of individuals citing a toxic workplace as a major influence on them continues growing. SHRM’s 2019 Culture Study explored this issue in detail, citing that 57% of people report leaving work feeling exhausted, and that a toxic atmosphere compounds that stress. Here are seven clear signs your workplace is toxic:
SIGN #1: High Turnover
Leaving a job is not something most people do lightly. It is stressful. However, the top reaction of employees to toxic work environments is to avoid it altogether, and they exit as fast as they are able since staying is more stressful than departing.
In the US, average turnover rates range between 12-15%, with small businesses being on the higher end, due to limited growth opportunity inherent in a smaller team. However, pay attention when your organization has higher departure rates, and also if lay off or firing rates are higher as well. Either way, high turnover implies poor communication, a conflict with a boss or peer, or limited opportunity. These are the most common underlying toxic stressors.
SIGN #2: Miscommunication and Misdirection
Nothing is more vital to a healthy relationship, in or out of work, than consistent, clear communication. It is extremely frustrating to get confusing or partial information. When that happens repeatedly, whether intentionally or not, it undermines trust. Leaders may believe their communication is crystal clear, or that direction should be assumed. This is a dangerous approach, and should be addressed quickly by asking for feedback frequently.
The only assumption that can ever be made with communication at work is that every employee needs clear direction and goals, regardless of their skills and experience. Whether goal-setting breaks down at an organizational level, or on a team/project level, the result is a crippling toxicity that few people can overlook for long.
SIGN #3: Stalled Growth
Healthy organizations grow. They might grow revenue, size, or both. They also have an established channel for the growth of their team members, including professional development, career pathing, and mentorship. When any of these growth avenues are missing, there is a loss of motivation and proactivity, which can be corrosive and undermine future growth as well.
SIGN #4: Division
Often the most recognizable sign of a toxic workplace is pervasive division. Division can include gossip, excluding team members from key opportunities or meetings, and the existence of cliques that amplify exclusion. These behaviors can be subtle, so leaders must keep an eye out for their own inadvertent participation, or lack of disruption when they occur in teams.
So, even though this a highly recognizable sign of toxicity, it can be difficult to acknowledge and exterminate. Nonetheless, team members who are on the outside of the division feel anxious and fearful. Being on the receiving end of a hostile culture quickly leads to disengagement and underperformance.
SIGN #5: Poor Boundaries and Balance
As of January 2021, some of the most common reasons the best and brightest leave their jobs is feeling disrespected, overworked, overwhelmed, unrecognized and undervalued. They cite burnout, both from underutilization and from over-utilization. Today, in a virtual and hybrid workplace, it is easier than ever to overlook the need for time off, and clear delineation between working hours and personal time. Feeling under-appreciated and unrecognized for “just doing the job they were hired to do” only compounds this situation.
Needless to say, there is a huge gap between the occasional request to work a little longer on a key initiative, and expecting an employee to frequently put their life on hold at the expense of personal needs—even if it is to respond to a “quick text or email” in off hours. It is the latter scenario of consistently devaluing the employee’s personal time that builds resentment and creates toxicity.
SIGN #6: Missing Motivation
Motivation is difficult to define, yet when it is missing, the signs are obvious: from lower productivity to absenteeism and low engagement, the energy behind the organization withers. There are a number of components that can sabotage motivation, including the first 5 signs of toxicity. If your organization is lacking motivation, start with assessing your communication, growth, balance and boundaries, and certainly divisive interactions.
Just as importantly, motivation suffers when there are critical missing components in the organization, such as a shared mission, vision and values that everyone knows and operates in alignment with.
SIGN #7: Lackluster Leadership
Poor leadership usually stems from a lack of training, and fortunately, can be readily taught by executive and leadership coaches, like myself. This has never been more important, since a toxic boss left unaddressed can rapidly infect an entire organization. The hallmark traits of a toxic boss include:
· Passive-aggressive feedback
· Criticism instead of coaching
· Any divisive, excluding or boundary-less behaviors
· Undervaluing or disrespecting team members
· Absent or inconsistent communication
· Unclear direction or goal setting
· Inability to manage their own stress and overwhelm
· Frequent complaining and negative commentary
· Inability to deal with toxic behaviors of other team members
Once you recognize some or all of these signs of toxicity in your organization, it is time to take action. If your organization is larger, you may be able to reach out to a supportive executive, or human resources team member, for help. If you are the leader of an organization, then arm yourself with useful tactics and strategies for re-establishing a healthy culture before a toxic workplace erodes your business